Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with chief executives of international companies at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, June 17, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with chief executives of international companies at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, June 17, 2016.

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday signed into law a controversial package of amendments to the country’s existing counterterrorism laws.

While the new law toughens punishment for crimes connected to terrorism and extremism, experts say that the criteria for determining what is terrorist and extremist are vague, meaning the authorities can interpret the terms in an unacceptably loose manner.

The Kremlin said in a statement Thursday that Putin instructed the government and the Federal Security Service, the country’s principal security agency, “to prepare drafts of necessary regulatory acts aimed at minimizing the possible risks associated with the application” of the new law.

Various provisions of the new law have come under heavy criticism. Among the critics are the heads of leading Russian mobile phone operators MegaFon, VimpelCom, MTS and Tele2; human rights activists, including the head of the Russian president’s own human rights council; and Muslim groups.

Data storage required

The law requires mobile phone operators to store customers’ data for six months and metadata for up to three years, and provide such data at the request of law enforcement agencies. Companies that provide such services as websites, social networks and messenger apps are required to help authorities decipher encrypted data.

The law makes it a criminal offense to incite unrest, armed rebellion or terrorism in mass media or online. It also, for the first time in post-Soviet Russia, introduces prison sentences for people who fail to inform the authorities about serious crimes, and increases the number of crimes for which Russians as young as 14 can be prosecuted.

Russian Muslim politicians and clergy have criticized the law for tightening restrictions on religious missionary activities, including by banning such activity on residential premises.

The legislation was passed by both houses of Russia’s parliament and signed into law by the president within just a few weeks.

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told VOA that Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, set for September, were a factor.

"It is obvious that Vladimir Putin is nervous,” he said. “He sees how his [popularity] rating is slipping through his fingers."

The Russian president, Oreshkin said, understands that the financial resources needed to maintain his influence are running out.

“It turns out that money is disappearing from the budget extremely quickly,” he said. “They need a lot, but real revenues are small. Under the conditions of a severe deficit of funds, it is extremely difficult to govern.”

Now that it has become more difficult to rule by the carrot, he said, Putin must rely even more on the stick.

FILE - Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, pictured
FILE - Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, pictured at a news conference in Moscow in March 2012, says Russian President Vladimir Putin "despises democratic procedures and the population" and believes it's "necessary to disperse and neutralize certain of its members."

'Disperse and neutralize'

"Because he deeply despises democratic procedures and the population, he believes there is no threat from society as a whole, but that it is necessary to disperse and neutralize certain of its members, so that they do not stick their necks out,” he said.

According to Oreshkin, the new counterterrorism law is “very useful” in this regard, because it gives the authorities the means to prosecute and jail some while intimidating others.

For his part, Ilya Shablinsky, deputy head of the department of constitutional and municipal law at Moscow Higher School of Economics, believes Putin took into account criticism of the new counterterrorism legislation by his own presidential human rights council, as well as by other experts and observers.

“For example, provisions imposing such sanctions as depriving people of their citizenship, banning them from leaving the country, and so on, disappeared from the law,” he told VOA.

Still, Shablinsky was critical of the new requirements imposed on telecom companies and internet service providers.

“They now have to store an enormous amount of information — some of the traffic that the special services might need at some point,” he said. “It's just a heavy and, in my opinion, senseless economic burden.”

Beyond economic considerations, human rights activists say the new law does not conform to generally accepted international standards, the European Convention on Human Rights or Russia's constitution.